Our Imperial Adventure Inflames the World

If for nothing else, Bush II should find a place in history as the guy who dropped the bunker-buster on the Garden of Eden. It’s not everybody who can lay claim to having destroyed the Mesopotamian cradle of Western Civ, but given the administration’s indifference to the past (i.e., “old Europe” vs. “new Europe”), you won’t find many in Washington tearing their hair out over the sacking of a few museums.

In recognition of Mr. Bush’s achievement, we might consider memorializing his august puss, if not on Mount Rushmore, then by erecting a new Sphinx. The stones might be hauled to the building site by captured Arabs, who have been convicted of “links” or being “linked,” as the American officialdom is wont to say. It may be farfetched, but in light of reports that at least some of the thefts from the Baghdad museum were done by gangs with connections to shady art dealers in the West, one might wonder if money had been passed to ensure that the American military didn’t get to the scene of the crime until the thieves had made their getaway with their swag of priceless antiquities.

What an unpatriotic thought on my part! I retract it: Our military never takes bribes and accepts only medals. Besides, agents of our scandal-ridden F.B.I. are reported to be on the scene, and we know what comfort we can take in the knowledge that these fearless, incorruptible and efficient detectives are on the track of the criminals.

If some American officer had been paid to turn a blind eye, it might indicate some appreciation of what has been destroyed. The truth probably is that the American military let these places be ruined simply because they didn’t give a good goddamn one way or the other.

Robert Fisk, reporting for the London Independent , added weight to this hypothesis when he wrote, “Yesterday was the burning of books. First came the looters, then the arsonists …. The National Library and Archives, a priceless treasure of Ottoman historical documents, including the old royal archives of Iraq, were turned to ashes in 3,000 degrees of heat. Then the library of Korans at the Ministry of Religious Endowment was set ablaze. When I caught sight of the Koranic library burning … I raced to the offices of the occupying power, the US Marines’ Civil Affairs Bureau. An officer shouted to a colleague that ‘this guy says some biblical library is on fire.’ I gave the map location, the precise name in Arabic and English …. [I]t would take only five minutes to drive there. Half an hour later, there wasn’t an American at the scene and the flames were shooting 200 feet into the air.” At about the same time, American TV viewers could see members of the American military speeding through the anarchic streets of Baghdad to foil a gang of bank robbers.

So Bush II will go into the history books as the philistine he is-but as Henry Ford was famously quoted as saying, “History is bunk.” Nevertheless, those favoring the invasion of Iraq have a lot of American history, bunky and not so bunky, on their side. If precedent is a justification for breaking and entering, the President and his neocon friends have plenty of it, dating at least as far back as Andrew Jackson driving the Seminoles out of Florida, through the theft of Texas and California from Mexico, the seizure of Hawaii and the bloody occupation of the Philippines. How the United States obtained the Guantánamo Bay enclave, currently being used as what is beginning to look like a concentration camp for Arabs, is best not closely scrutinized.

Starting with the Spanish-American War, the nation began fissuring over militarism, nondefensive war and the rights and wrongs of stealing other people’s real estate. While most Republicans couldn’t wait to enlist, the Republican Speaker of the House, Tom Reed, was unable to stomach going to war against the decrepit Spanish empire. He was too loyal a party man to go public with his girlish qualms, so he wordlessly resigned the speakership and his Maine House seat and disappeared into private life. Sentiment was turning against attacking people and nations which posed no threat to us. In 1910, the idea of internationalism came into existence when President William Howard Taft came out for binding arbitration, not war, in conflicts between nations.

On the other side of the argument stood Theodore Roosevelt, who, sounding like an editorialist in today’s Weekly Standard , sneered at what he called “unrighteous peace” and “mollycoddles” who wouldn’t fight. Taft considered Roosevelt, who had seen action in the Spanish-American dustup, to be “obsessed with his love of war and the glory of it,” and in 1915 Taft took a leading role in the newly established League to Enforce Peace and its effort to create a system of international law.

Until Iraq, the Spanish-American War was the last one the United States fought for self-aggrandizement; the last large theft of property by the U.S. was Theodore Roosevelt’s taking a chunk of Colombia, which we converted into the nation/colony of Panama for canal-building purposes. In the 19th century, such thefts were glorious acts of extending civilization into lands inhabited by backward, savage people who worshipped inferior gods and lacked proper sanitation. England, France, Germany, Belgium and Japan prowled the world for places to steal and colonize in the name of progress and modernity.

Then came Woodrow Wilson, the most important or the least appreciated 20th-century President. The age of empires ended with his proclamation of the self-determination of peoples. Speaking the language of liberty and democracy, Wilson denounced going to war to steal the lands and patrimony of others. In place of rivalries among the powerful, he proposed a system of collective security, international law and justice which found its fullest expression in the League of Nations.

From Wilson forward, no President would use Theodore Roosevelt’s language of imperial conquest. After Wilson, America abjured war for profit, war for territory or war for other people’s possessions. In this third year of the 21st century, George Bush is also using the Wilsonian rhetoric. But he lies. After saying we sought no territory from Iraq but were engaged in an altruistic crusade (sorry-poor choice of words), it comes out that America is helping itself to this and that military morsel in that bedraggled land. According to news reports, Washington is planning what The New York Times called a “long-term military relationship with the emerging government of Iraq, one that would grant the Pentagon access to military bases and project American influence into the heart of the unsettled region.” The expression “long-term relationship” is Orwellian English meaning theft.

The next time a red-white-and-blue-sodden individual asks: “Why do they hate us?”, the proper reply should be: “Because we cheat, lie and steal.” The supine American press may not make a big thing out of it, but abroad they remember. No weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq.

One is tempted to ask whether Mr. Bush and his people ever seriously believed that Iraq was a threat. Was this charade of war a put-up job from the start, and from before the start? More largely, can they get away with turning Iraq into a colony or a protectorate? Is the nation which threw off its colonial chains now going to take Iraq’s independence and make it a de facto colony? A century ago, such things were approved of. But not in the Wilsonian epoch, and not now-when, if there is one principle universally agreed on the world over, it’s the self-determination of peoples as Woodrow Wilson first enunciated it. Even in the imperial age, America was unable to successfully digest its Spanish-American War conquests. For 100 years, relations between the United States and Cuba have been poisoned by it.

Internationally, no President-not Franklin Roosevelt, not John Kennedy, no one-was as idolized by the people of the world as Woodrow Wilson. In his 1919 tour, he walked the streets of Europe as millions turned out to shower him with flowers and adulation. George Bush can’t step out of the United States without being surrounded by thousands of armed men, and even then he is in constant and real danger. He is as hated as Wilson was loved.

As opposed to President Bush, “Mr. Wilson rose to intellectual domination of most of the civilized world. With his courage and eloquence, he carried a message of hope for the independence of nations, the freedom of men and lasting peace. Never since his time has any man risen to the political and spiritual heights that came to him,” wrote Herbert Hoover, in perhaps the only biography of one President by another. Elsewhere in the book, as if to make it clear who is who and what is what, he wrote of Wilson, “Had he lived, he would have seen the League concept rise again from the second bloodbath of mankind under the name of the United Nations. The spirit of Woodrow Wilson came to the world again.”